Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
Whether he accepts the label or not, Lecrae is the king of Christian hip-hop. From getting his start while performing on the evangelical youth conference circuit to helping start the Christian rap label Reach Records and sharing mutual admiration with prominent Reformed pastors, Lecrae’s been a mainstay in evangelical culture for the past decade.
He’s no stranger to mainstream pop culture, either. He’s won two Grammys, and his 2014 album Anomaly went gold. He’s worked with prominent hip-hop artists including Big K.R.I.T., Bun B, and No Malice, and he’s a regular guest on influential radio shows like Sway in the Morning and The Breakfast Club.
His newest album, All Things Work Together (a reference to Romans 8:28), takes Lecrae’s status to a new level, though. ATWT is his first release on a major record label, Columbia Records, rather than his own Reach Records. Names like Ty Dolla $ign and Metro Boomin appear on the album. Sonically, All Things Work Together fits in any hip-hop radio lineup tucked between Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, and Future. His talent and vision have allowed Lecrae to craft an album that reflects the sounds of the contemporary hip-hop landscape while still retaining his own artistic identity. It’s not flawless, but there are few, if any, other artists who could do what Lecrae has done with this album.All Things Work Together is Lecrae’s most interesting album yet and contains some of his best creative work.
Lecrae has always made music inspired by the intersection of the various parts of his identity. A Christian rapper trying to create music with mainstream appeal. A Christian with deep ties to a non-Christian background. And most importantly for his new album, a black man influenced by and creating for a majority white audience. (Just consider that when asked to name a few books that have influenced his life and music, his answer included Andy Crouch and Malcolm Gladwell as well as James Baldwin.)
This diverse perspective is part of Lecrae’s widespread appeal but it’s also a challenge. Lecrae has dealt with the difficulties that come along with these intersecting identities, but never as forthrightly and in depth as on All Things Work Together.
This is an album born of racial trauma. After the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others, Lecrae publicly lamented and spoke out against police brutality. In an interview with Billboard magazine, he said, “What I also found is that a lot of us are wrestling with PTSD. You can’t be exposed to that much death and injustice and walk around unscathed.” In using his platform to speak out, he hoped to find a community with whom to lament.
Sadly, Lecrae found significant resistance among his largely white, evangelical fan base. Many took offense at Lecrae’s comments, saying that he needed to “stick to the Gospel.” He addresses this response on the track “Facts”: “He divisive, he don’t rep the King, he just want the fame/Aw man, now they actin’ like I’m suddenly political.”
This tension, though, is not surprising. Hip-hop and white evangelicals are strange cultural bedfellows. There’s an inherent cultural gap between a black artist creating music rooted in the tradition and experience of black America and a listener in American evangelicalism, a tradition with roots tangled in white supremacy. As Lecrae puts it, “You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists/I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits.”
What is new, though, is how Lecrae has chosen to respond to this tension. For most of his career, Lecrae was the one who bridged the gap. The ministry of white, Reformed Christian men was the catalyst for his spiritual renewal. (He even wrote a song based on a John Piper book.) However, a frequent critique of this particular evangelical movement is the continual minimizing of social justice issues — and Lecrae’s early music, which rarely mentions social issues, reflects this. Instead, transformation through Christ is always about questions of personal piety. Questions of identity and culture are only addressed insofar as his identity is now in Christ over anything else.
For this reason, even though he’s always demonstrated a dynamic lyrical ability, Lecrae’s early music feels limited, boxed-in both thematically and sonically by the culture that was both his influence and his audience. It’s music made to not rock the boat, and in the wider world of hip-hop, it’s pretty average despite his obvious talent.
Now, however, Lecrae is refusing to ignore his experience as a black man in America as the price of admission into evangelical circles.
“Facts” addresses this conflict with white evangelical culture directly and is Lecrae at his best, his lyrical dexterity shining over a complex and banging beat. He pushes back against attempts to make his subject matter more palatable: “‘Crae,’ they say ‘you should follow in the steps of King’/I say, ‘You’ve forgotten how they shot him in the streets.'” At his most pointed, he raps “I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith,” setting up his blunt message to evangelicals: “Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy/Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.”
This is a call for repentance — to kill the power of white supremacy that has and continues to undergird the majority culture of white America at the cost of oppressing people of color.
As the album’s second track, “Facts” serves as an interpretive key for the rest of All Things Work Together. In later tracks, Lecrae is transparent about his doubts, grief, and depression — things all provoked in large part because of the crisis in identity caused by conflict with white evangelicalism. Or, as he puts it in the Billboard interview:
There was a large contingent of people with whom I may have shared similar beliefs in terms of faith. But they were completely on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of sharing my grief for the loss of these lives. So they lashed out and accused me of being political. That drove me to a place of deep despair and depression.
In an interview on the Truth’s Table podcast, Lecrae describes this realization about his relationship with white evangelicalism as an identity crisis:
If I turn my back on white evangelicalism then who am I? If we disagree on all points on issues of black lives and social justice, and I’m not getting pats on the back, from, you know, John Piper, well then who am I now? Because for years that had been shaping my identity and I didn’t even realize it.
Whereas his 2014 album Anamoly was Lecrae saying, “Hey guys, I need to be free to be me,” All Things Work Together “is actually manifestation of that. It’s me making music as authentically as I possibly can.”
But this new creative perspective does not come without some growing pains. Although the album pulls from many influences, the sound never quite synthesizes as a project, sonically speaking. There isn’t a musical thread that ties the album together. It lacks cohesion at times; groups of songs standing alone as Lecrae tries on various sounds rooted in black musical traditions.
The same is true lyrically. At 14 tracks, the album can’t sustain the focus, dynamism, and creativity of its best tracks. Songs like “Wish You the Best” and “Lucked Up” feel out of place on this project. Lecrae can also slide back into stale lyrics that are clichéd or sentimental, especially toward the end of the album with “I’ll Find You” and “8:28.”
Despite some inconsistencies, All Things Work Together is Lecrae’s most interesting album yet and contains some of his best creative work. Listening to the album, we know this new space in which Lecrae is now living and creating has been hard-earned but worth it for him. It remains to be seen what old fans this shift will cost Lecrae and what new fans it will gain him, but it’s clear that this matters little to him. “I’m really free. I don’t feel like I have to be the rapping pastor.”
As Lecrae continues to explore this newfound freedom, both musically and thematically, we can only expect his music to get better. If All Things Work Together is a sign of things to come rather than the pinnacle of what Lecrae has to offer, we have much to look forward to.
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